Hunger is expensive: The World Food Program (WFP) announced recently that child malnutrition in Ethiopia costs 55.5 billion Br every year. That is 16.5% of the gross domestic product: nearly a fifth of the country’s earnings.
Ironically, hunger also disproportionately affects small holder farmers: The United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that half of the planet’s hungry live in smallholder farming communities. But here is an integrated solution: investing in indigenous crops and agro-ecological practices can decrease hunger, improve nutrition, and increase incomes.
Environmentally sustainable practices can increase crop yields by almost 80%, according to a study published by the Royal Society. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development recommends investments in improving the sustainable productivity of underutilised subsistence foods. These so called “orphan crops” are often high in nutrients, resilient to droughts or flooding, and resistant to pests and disease.
Enset, a crop typically grown by smallholders in Ethiopia, delivers a big bang for the buck. Grown mainly in Southern and Western Ethiopia, this locally domesticated member of the banana family benefits smallholder farmers nutritionally and financially.
Fifty enset roots, which yield up to 40kg of food, could feed a family of five or six for several months. Enset has long helped guard families against hunger because of its low maintenance and high yields.
Many parts of Ethiopia, including the Oromia Region, have been heavily deforested: farmers are often forced to clear land for fuel and farming, leaving the soil vulnerable to erosion.
In Western Ethiopia, the Blue Nile carries the eroded soil to Egypt and the Sudan, leaving fields in Ethiopia barren of nutrients. But tree crops, including enset, can prevent land degradation and erosion; they keep soil moist, can provide a shady location for farmers to grow other crops, including coffee.
A study by Ken Wilson of the Christensen Fund, a San Francisco-based organisation working to value biocultural diversity in the African Rift Valley and elsewhere around the world, points out that enset needs to be understood as part of a diverse integrated agro-ecological system meeting food, fibre and cash needs. He highlights how Ethiopian researchers have documented how well many farmers intercrop coffee (another indigenous crop of the forests of this region) with enset and timber trees.
Enset trees do not simply reduce erosion and protect other crops — they can improve soil quality, unlike many cereal crops. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) published a paper in 2010 on how other crops contributed to soil nutrients potassium, phosphorus, and nitrogen and found that enset significantly increased the amount of nitrogen in the soil, as well as somewhat increasing potassium and phosphorus.
The researchers recommended lowering the risk of topsoil erosion in farmland in the highlands, where enset is grown, emphasising long-term payback on inputs. Enset fulfills those recommendations, because of the way that cover and slowly decaying leaf litter prevent loss of soil and nutrients from the land, including capturing nutrients from household waste and livestock manure and reducing the need for annual applications of expensive chemical fertilizers.
And enset can help prevent malnutrition among pregnant woman and children, even before birth. According to a study in the Journal of Nutrition, pregnant Ethiopian women who depended on enset as a staple crop had higher vitamin B12 levels than their maize-eating peers. Children deprived of good nutrition can have long-term health problems for the rest of their lives, including stunting, brain damage, and increased risk of disease; malnutrition during childhood can lower income during adulthood, according to the WFP.
While research institutions and the funding and donor communities have often ignored — or even dismissed — traditional and indigenous crops for the past few decades, that is now changing as the benefits of enset and other crops become better known. Enset and other indigenous crops can be an affordable and simple way to improve food security, nutrition, and environmental sustainability over the long-term. They simply need more attention, more research, and, ultimately, more funding and investment.